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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Brickyard 400 Race Recap

The Key Moment: Jamie McMurray edged out Kevin Harvick on the final restart, then drove off into the sunset as Harvick battled with his old friend Greg Biffle for second.

In a Nutshell: This was a race that started out slowly but eventually petered out altogether.

Dramatic Moment: Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya waged an extended battle for the lead well ahead of the rest of the pack, even if neither of them ended up winning.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

OK, Indy is a huge track with lots of seats. OK, the economy sucks. OK, there’s empty seats at practically every track this year. OK, it was very hot Sunday in Indy. But there’s no getting around the fact there were huge swaths of empty seats at the Brickyard. Forget about the heat, the economy and whatnot. Why isn’t Indy selling out? There’s a sign as you enter the garage area that reads, “Welcome to Gasoline Alley.” Well, there ought to be a sign posted at the track entrance that reads “No Passing Zone Next 400 Miles.”

Budweiser to the No. 29 team and Harvick next year? It looks like that’s in the cards. Dale Junior fans will doubtlessly be left wondering how their boy would have fared if he and Bud moved to RCR rather than Hendrick when he left DEI.

Someone ought to let Indy officials know a Corvette is a two-seater. If you need to haul seven, folks, a Suburban is better suited for the job.

NASCAR is considering using fuel-injected engines in some races next year as the primitive Cup cars begin actually putting a little “stock” back in stock cars. NASCAR’s big fear is that fuel injection means computers need to be added to the cars, and those computers could be used to run illegal technologies like traction control. It’s sort of like pot, though; the best way to eliminate the illicit trade in the drug is to simply legalize it. “Stock” cars by and large now have traction control already. (I’d really like to see how a showroom stock set of Shelby Mustangs, Dodge Challenger SRTs and the upcoming Camaro Z28 with proper safety equipment and slicks would fare in a 200-lap race at Martinsville.) In a related note, the Des Moines school district has canceled warning notes that students should be vigilant against dinosaur attacks while walking to class.

It’s just another sign that the Brian France era of NASCAR isn’t working out as planned. TNT’s Summer Stretch is over and Cup racing will be handled by ABC/ESPN for the rest of the season, including the all-singing/all-dancing Chase. We’ll give ESPN a couple weeks to get over their first-race jitters before commenting on their efforts (although it’s hard to consider them a rookie when they were providing top-notch Cup coverage when Jimmie Johnson was still riding a tricycle). It is interesting to note, though, that just three races, all of them Saturday night events, will be shown on the ABC network. The rest will be on the ESPN cable outlets, including nine of ten Chase events as well as today’s Brickyard 400. Back when Brian France was beating his chest over the now decade-old “new” TV deal (in addition to great big checks), the big news was the fact that stock car racing was moving from cable TV to network coverage. But this year, a majority of Cup races are now on cable again. Rumors persist that ABC/ESPN would desperately love to offload their unprofitable NASCAR coverage on another network ASAP; after all, the X Games and timber sports are poised to explode in popularity….

Speaking of the TV coverage, it was a little disheartening to have ESPN choose to devote the opening segment of their pre-race coverage to just two drivers, Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Yep, that’s the same duo FOX’s broadcasters sang love sonnets to for the opening portion of the season. Oh, and when the Brickyard ratings come in, my guess is Rusty Wallace’s contention that “everybody in the world is watching” will prove to be a bit of hyperbole.

One last thought on ESPN’s first attempt at Cup coverage this season. The four drivers they highlighted in the pre-race show finished 22nd, 23rd, 15th, and 32nd.

I’m kicking around ideas for a column on the whole “Boys, have at it” concept that is so oft-discussed these days, mainly due to the incidents involving Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski at Atlanta this spring and in last week’s Gateway Nationwide Series race. Some fans, some drivers, and some media members well and truly have their panties up in a wad that Edwards wasn’t tarred, feathered, whipped with desert thorns and boiled alive in a vat of battery acid after Gateway. My guess is those same souls were at their mother’s teat back in the days when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison routinely tried to launch each other into the cheap seats week after week. At the height of the feud, crew members from the No. 43 team gave Allison a good beatdown at Islip, one where Allison threatened to take legal action. But it was the seats sold to watch the King and Allison take their battle to the next venue that kept NASCAR alive in the aftermath of the Big Three quitting the series. While I never want to see a fan hurt attending a race, I feel that’s the responsibility of the track owner, not the drivers. If nothing else, the Edwards-Keselowski feud has folks talking about NASCAR rather than golf and soccer again (and remember: this is stock car racing, not lawn croquet.) For the record, I think the poster boy of “Boys, Have At It” isn’t Keselowski or even Edwards (both of whom ran each other hard but clean at ORP Saturday night, so they must have gotten the message.) It was Gordon’s run at Sonoma, wrecking five drivers over the course of the day, that really pushed the limits of what is and isn’t acceptable in full-fendered automobile racing. If everyone who owes Gordon a little payback for Sonoma metes it out this season, the new baby on its way might not be the only one wearing diapers by this November.

The future of Richard Petty Motorsports looks tenuous, indeed, for 2011 right now. We know who won’t be driving for the team next year, but not who will be, and if there are any companies left who might sponsor them. I know the King is largely only a figurehead at the organization that bears his name as of late, but it’s still hard to imagine NASCAR racing without the most legendary and successful organization in the sport.

One of the more troubling trial balloons being floated about by NASCAR right now concerning updating the Chase concerns a single-race elimination to decide the title. The proposed idea (which is far from being adopted at this point) is to have the top-five drivers in the points show up equal at the last race of the season, with the driver posting the best finish of the five being crowned champion. On the plus side, it would surely add a lot of drama… for just one race. My biggest hesitation concerning the concept is team orders. Say David Ragan is out of title contention, while Edwards and Biffle had to beat Johnson and Gordon to win a lucrative and high-profile title. Might not Ragan be ordered to block or even wreck the Nos. 24 and 48 teams to help his organization win the championship? The day that happens is the day I leave this sport and all my accumulated stock car racing magazines, mementos, clothing, and diecasts are finally dragged to the curb (as if we actually had curbs here in hysterical Guthriesville) on trash day. One might note that team orders decided the winner of the German Grand Prix earlier on Sunday….

Can he be serious? Bernie Ecclestone, the demented troll that runs Formula 1 racing, is suggesting that the Monaco Grand Prix might be off the schedule. Our friend Bernie says the Auto Club of Monaco, which runs the race, isn’t paying him enough to keep it. (Purportedly, the Principality of Monaco pays F1 zero dollars a year, banking on the prestige and history of the event to release them from such obligations. Plus, you have that whole royalty and tax exempt thing going on.) Well on the day dear Bernie shuts down the Monaco Grand Prix, I suggest that he turn off the lights at his office, head home and hang his loathsome self by the neck, for he will have finally succeeded in his master plan and life’s work: destroying the once proud F1 series to feed his insatiable greed.

You have to wonder what Joe Weatherly, perhaps the most superstitious driver who ever competed in racing, would have thought about the field at the Brickyard being paced by a green Corvette pace car. (Green is traditionally considered unlucky at racetracks – except for at the pay window.) I’ll add that while a former buddy’s Fathom green 435 horsepower ’69 Vette with its white roof was one of the prettiest (and most frightening to ride in) cars I’ve been acquainted with, the pace car’s paint scheme just didn’t cut it. If they’re giving it away, I’m not going to fill out a raffle ticket….

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

For the second straight year, Montoya dominated the Brickyard only to have victory wrested from his grasp. Last year, Montoya suffered a pit-road speeding penalty. This year, conservative strategy with four new tires on a late pit stop dropped Montoya from first to seventh, and in a desperate attempt to get back to the front JPM wrecked his car en route to 32nd.

Johnson didn’t look like a four-time champion and three-time Brickyard 400 winner on Sunday. Early in the event, he showed some speed, but a blistered tire and a setup that went away left Johnson disconsolate with a 22nd-place finish.

Four-time Brickyard 400 champion Gordon never really got up to speed. A broken splitter, then flat tire added insult to injury, leaving him a less-than-impressive 23rd.

Ryan Newman had a long afternoon after cutting down a tire on the ninth lap while running seventh. He wound up 17th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

That Biffle had a shot at the win seems remarkable after he tangled with Keselowski on pit road as the No. 16 entered his pit and The Brad was leaving his.

Ron Hornaday snapped a long winless drought and a somewhat dismal start to the 2010 Truck season with a victory at ORP Friday night.

Usually, when you wreck on the first lap it’s going to be a long day for a driver. But Kyle Busch emerged from the carnage far better than some of his victims in that incident and drove on to an eighth-place finish.

Edwards‘s chances at a decent performance seemed to be going up in the smoke through his coolant system vent tube early in the race. But grass was cleaned out of the grille area of the No. 99 without losing a lap, and Edwards caught a lucky caution and drove on to a seventh-place finish.

Bill Elliott and the underfunded Wood Brothers team managed a respectable lead lap finish in 18th, well ahead of some of the sport’s big names.

All three of Richard Childress’s drivers posted top-six finishes at Indy.

Worth Noting

  • The win was McMurray’s fifth Cup triumph, but just the second he’s managed on a non-plate track in his career. The score between McMurray and former employer Jack Roush is now two wins to none.
  • McMurray is just the third driver to win both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same year. Dale Jarrett (1996) and Johnson (2006) are the others. Amazingly enough, he’s also the first driver to win this race who entered Sunday outside the top 10 in Sprint Cup points.
  • Harvick (second) has now enjoyed top-five finishes in four of the last five Cup races.
  • Biffle’s third-place finish was his first top-five result since Bristol this spring. The 38 laps he led on Sunday are also his best since Bristol.
  • Clint Bowyer finished fourth for the second consecutive weekend and the third time this season. Those three fourth-place results are his best of 2010; he also has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup career.
  • Tony Stewart (fifth) has finished in the top 10 in four of the last five Cup races. He might not need that second job working the drive thru window at Burger King after all.
  • The top-10 finishers at Indy Sunday drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas and a lone Dodge.
  • Edwards led a lap at Indy. It was the fifth lap he’s managed to lead this season, leaving him two behind Mattias Ekstrom.
  • Kyle Busch (eighth) managed his first top-10 result in the Cup series since Pocono.
  • It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone refer to Joey Logano (ninth) as “Sliced Bread.” He’s still looking for his third top-five finish 20 races deep into the 2010 Cup season.
  • Mark Martin’s 11th-place finish was actually his best since Charlotte in May.
  • Matt Kenseth’s 12th-place finish was also his best since the World 600.
  • In the five races since he won back-to-back at Pocono and Michigan, Denny Hamlin (15th) hasn’t managed a top-five result.
  • In the three races since Johnson (22nd) won back-to-back at Sonoma and Loudon, he’s averaged a 26th-place finish.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (27th) hasn’t led a lap in a Cup race since Charlotte. He’s led laps in a grand total of three races this year.

What’s the Points?

Harvick maintains his point lead, and opened the gap over second-place Gordon to 184. Third-place Hamlin is 260 behind Harvick, while Johnson and Kurt Busch round out the top five in the standings.

Inside the top 12, only two drivers shifted positions. Hamlin took over the third spot from Johnson, but his lead over fourth is a scant one point.

Outside the Chase, Martin wrested 13th place in the standings from Earnhardt Jr., who was a PIV in the whole Montoya mess. Martin still needs to make up 62 points to re-enter the top 12, though.

Further back, Sunday’s victory moved McMurray up two spots to 16th in the standings, but he needs to make up a not inconsiderable 151 points before Richmond to make the Chase. Only three drivers remain within 150 points of the top 12 – Martin, Earnhardt (94 back) and Newman (147).

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one two lukewarm cans of generic stuff served up with a sizzle sandwich, because there sure wasn’t much steak served on Sunday.

Next Up: It’s off to Pocono for round two. Be sure to bring your sunblock and coolers, because Pennsylvania has been broiling under an endless stream of uncharacteristic heat waves for about three months now.

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